Just people in bathing suits: The YMCA

Published 3:53 pm Saturday, October 27, 2012

By Allegra Jordan


When my father, Malcolm Jordan, passed away this spring after a brief illness, my mother was faced with a choice. It was Easter weekend, and the church was already filled with white lilies. If people weren’t going to send flowers, what should be sent?

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She thought for a few minutes and decided that the YMCA of Selma and the Gideons should be the two places that my father would have wanted to honor. And so, in my father’s departing, gifts were made to that very special place in his heart, the YMCA.

My father loved the YMCA. Every day he could, he’d go to the Y and participate in water aerobics. And there I got the shock of my life. I learned that he and a civil rights activist who had once threatened to sue a family member had become friends in the YMCA pool.

Not fake friends. Not frenemies. Friends.

I guess it’s hard not to see a person as a friend when they are in in a swimsuit, bobbing around in the pool, just like you. It’s a first step.

This is a meaningful data point in our world. There was pain in the past, and we are not a people that discharge pain well. We hold onto it. We tell ourselves and those around us, “That’s just how it is.”

Well, maybe not. For the past four years I’ve worked at Duke University with its reconciliation ministry. I’ve worked with people living in the shadow of some bad things: the killing fields of Cambodia, Nazi death camps in Poland, and the genocides of east Africa where killings were done often within a Christian church.

In the wake of these unchangeable realities, we found and supported leaders who sought to live out 2 Cor. 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself … and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

I have seen people forgive kidnappers and murderers in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and South Sudan. I have seen people reach out to former Nazis. I have seen Japanese people lament their country’s role in the rape of Korea. It’s possible. I’ve seen it.

What do you need to reconcile across gender, race, class and the very real destruction found in the past?

You need two people. It is the interrelationship where we build new hope.

You need a place. In this case the YMCA led to the article you and many other people are reading today. And given I’ve told this story worldwide, many more people know of that special YMCA in Selma.

And you need hope. The way things are is not the way things have to be. Things can be different, but it’s a choice. No one has to make the choice to flourish. It’s crazy not to, but cycles of violence make us crazy. That’s one reason they are so tough to interrupt.

And yet the YMCA provides that interruption for those who will take up the challenge. My father found it to be that quiet space where people are welcome to work out things impossible in other settings. No preaching. No finger pointing. Just water aerobics where everyone’s in a swimsuit trying to improve their heart health.


Allegra Jordan is the 1987 Selma Girl of the Year, Selma High School Valedictorian and runner up for Dallas County Junior Miss. She is a graduate of Samford and Harvard Business School. She lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. Her first novel, Harvard 1914: A War Romance, comes out this November.